Rage against the machine
December 21, 2010
Brendan Venter has his share of admirers and detractors © Getty Images
What do Graham Taylor, the former England football manager, and Brendan Venter, the soon to be former Saracens director of rugby, have in common?
The answer can be found near the foot of this column, but let's start with a tenuous yet significant link between the two men. When Taylor landed what he would come to describe as "the impossible job", he set out with an open and accommodating attitude toward the media. Reporters and photographers were greeted with a smile and a ready quote.
Taylor's father Tom, who passed away in 2005, had been the chief football reporter and a sports writer on their local newspaper in Scunthorpe. Growing up, Taylor watched matches from the press box; he learned what the media were about, what they wanted and why, and the pros and cons of co-operating with them.
Of course, before too long the job, his own inadequacies and the wilder factions of the press - notably those at The Sun who super-imposed Taylor's face onto a turnip to go with the headline 'Swedes 2 Turnips 1' - had ground him down. "If people spit at you, the turnip joke's not funny," Taylor observed. It was not the media who did the spitting but he was certain it wouldn't have happened without them.
Venter's boss at Saracens - Ed Griffiths, the chief executive - used to live in South Africa, where he worked in newspapers, magazines and broadcasting; he also looked after the promotion of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. His presence at Venter's side has been a constant feature of press conferences since they joined the club and Griffiths' hidden hand can be guessed at in the much-talked-about post-match interview Venter gave to Sky Sports a couple of weeks ago. Like Taylor, these men know the media and what it can do.
You can argue over the efficacy of what Venter did, and whether his point might have been better made in other ways, or indeed not at all. I'd like to set it in the wider context of what he and Griffiths have been up to since they joined Saracens and how it reflects on rugby.
Challenges to authority throw light on pre-conceptions and accepted wisdom. This is generally a good and worthwhile thing. For 18 months or so, rugby union in England and Europe has had to stand up to Saracens' implied charge that it is a cosy world in need of a shake-up. Why is it refereed like this? Why does the disciplinary process work like this? Why do the media work like this?
Unsurprisingly, there has been action and reaction. Governing bodies have punished Venter and supporters of other clubs have derided him for making his challenges after his team has lost matches. Irish journalists at Wembley for Saracens' defeat by Leinster following which Venter criticised ERC's refereeing policy dismissed him out of hand as a bad loser. They had no time for the ins and outs of what he said. Wrong time, wrong place - though you would guess Griffiths would counter that the post-match interview is, in fact, quite the best time to achieve maximum publicity.
Only Venter will know whether he says what he does purely for the good of the game. He need not be an altruistic saint who only acts on others' behalf. He is allowed to look after himself and Saracens, too. But he described to me once the hideous violence wreaked on perceived police informants in his native country and why it made him suspicious of mob behaviour. This is a man who knows the value of freedom of speech.
What makes me smile and empathise with Venter is that despite his apparent rebelliousness I do not believe he is acting outside the system. True, he has kept his medical practices in South Africa, so he is not reliant on rugby for his living, which may make him freer than others to comment on it. But he is part of the system.
The bans and fines Venter has received may be lenient, or strict or just right. The point is that they were administered by the Rugby Football Union and by European Rugby Cup. And who and what are they? The RFU is a collection of clubs, one of which is Saracens, and constituent bodies. ERC is just a company set up by the Six Nations unions and their clubs, one of which is Saracens, to run the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup.
So when Venter criticised ERC and the RFU he was criticising himself. You may think that is a ridiculous or even disingenuous statement, but it is fundamental and Venter expressed it well at the start of this season. "What is Saracens?" he said. "It is the people. Without the people it is nothing." Rugby is the people in it, and who run it. When Venter made his point about ERC he used a football cliché, reprising the banal, parrot-like replies of the assistant coach Dave Dodds in Mike Bassett: England Manager.
The movie was a pastiche of football - albeit a loving pastiche, I think - and in particular of Graham Taylor, his assistant Phil Neal and their sidekick Lawrie McMenemy as portrayed in the 1994 documentary which gave us the phrase "Do I not like that?" Taylor would watch his team concede a goal and intone: "Now - this is a test". By his side, Neal parroted: "This is a real test".
So I say good on Venter for raging against the machine - let him dab his oil where he may, and the rest of us cogs and wheels will move with or against him. If the machine coughs and splutters and spits him out of the exhaust, so be it.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.